‘Travel makes one modest, you can see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.’ These words from Gustave Flaubert, the renowned French novelist, encapsulate the wonder and awe of travel. Though, during his lifetime, the opportunity to explore distant lands was reserved for a small, wealthy elite. Twenty years after his death, the turn of the 20th century ushered in advances in aviation, which increased the convenience of travelling to exotic places. Fast forward to this century, and tourist numbers have skyrocketed. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), there were 70 million international tourist arrivals in 1960. In 2018, this figure rose to 1.4 billion.
Tourism not only creates a more educated global population but also benefits the locals of urban tourist hotspots. The Secretary-General of the UNWTO explains that the industry translates ‘into socio-economic development, employment, infrastructure development and export revenues.’ However, the exponential rise in numbers of visitors is harming the experience of everyone in the vicinity of popular destinations. Over-tourism is now a problem for famous cities. The term describes ‘destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently.’ Annie Lowrey, of The Atlantic, adds that ‘tourists can alter the experience of visiting something such that they ruin the very experience that they’ve been trying to have’.
Cities which house popular tourist attractions are prone to over-tourism. The Louvre, Paris, which is home to the Mona Lisa, has experienced overwhelming crowds, to the detriment of visitors. The museum may have up to 30,000 visitors per day, which is unmanageable for staff, and a nightmare for visitors. Many complain that after queuing for hours, they only get to see the oil painting for one minute, as they are hurried for all visitors to be accommodated. In 2018, a record 10.2 million people entered the doors of Louvre. Other places have experienced more seasonal over-tourism, fuelled by an obsession with ‘Instagramibility’. This means a scene which is worthy of being posted on Instagram. For instance, Lake Elsinore, California, is inundated with people taking pictures during the annual poppy boom, which officials last year labelled a ‘public safety crisis.’
To provide a broader picture, Venice, Italy, has a population of 50,000 people, yet experiences 30 million visitors a year. Barcelona, meanwhile, has a population of 1.6 million but welcomes 32 million tourists. These figures are only likely to rise. The UNWTO report highlights that ‘global tourism trends, such as increased mobility, growing middle class, more affordable transport and accommodation options, will continue to stimulate increased demand for urban tourism.’
Amsterdam faces a similar situation. With annual tourist numbers reaching over 22 times the size of the population, officials have decided to take action. They have introduced a ‘tourist tax’. Tourism taxes are defined by Responsible Travel as ‘small fees usually levied indirectly through accommodation providers or holiday companies, and typically aimed at overnight visitors.’ In the capital of the Netherlands, foreigners pay £2.54 extra per night.
Contrary to widespread assumption, the aim of the tax is not always to reduce overnight visitor numbers. Instead, its primary objective is usually to enhance the visitor experience and the quality of life for locals. As evidenced in the UNWTO report, residents surveyed favoured improved infrastructure and facilities in the city, funded by the proceeds of the tax.
Tourism taxes are not unique to the Netherlands. 26 European countries also have some version of a ‘tourist tax’. As travel increases, even more states are likely to introduce this measure. The UK, rare in the fact that it does not have a tourist tax, is in the process of levying one on campers in the Scottish highlands. In 2018, 6.5 million campers enjoyed the site, in the process supporting 25,000 jobs. Far from discouraging campers, the local council, which has expressed its openness to the policy, would invest the estimated £5 – 10 million annual revenue in facilities used by the campers, such as upgrading and increasing the number of public restrooms.
From the Louvre to the Scottish Highlands, hopefully, we can return to experiencing the phenomenon of ‘what a tiny place’ we occupy in the world, rather than which place we occupy in the queue.
Written by Jack Jones